Omega-3s; the essential fats

High fat? Low fat? No fat? What do we really need to know? For many of us, the message can be reduced to this simple sentence. There is just one type of fat that we need to add to our diets: the omega-3 fatty acids.

There are two distinct families of polyunsaturated fats, omega-6 and omega-3. Both are vital to health. Within each family, there is one essential fatty acid that must be present in our diet; from this “parent” fatty acid, other family members can be produced in our bodies, including longer molecules called highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFAs).

The two families perform functions that are necessary and that counterbalance each other. Compounds called eicosanoids made from HUFAs in the omega-6 family increase blood pressure, inflammation and cell proliferation or division. Those formed from HUFAs in the omega-3 family protect against these responses. While we need the eicosanoids formed from the omega-6 family, when we produce too much, our risk of chronic disease increases.

One of the HUFAs in the omega-3 family is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). It is an important part of the gray matter of the brain, the retina of the eye and other specific cell membranes. Low levels of DHA have been associated with conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We must get enough DHA either by making it from the parent omega-3 fatty acid or by getting it directly from foods. One direct source of DHA is fish; however we can also get DHA now from microalgae, which is actually the origin of DHA present in fish. I find that some of my clients benefit from direct sources of DHA and recommend taking it in veggie caps as an optimal way to get this HUFA.



Our diets provide a multitude of sources of omega-6 fatty acids: all sorts of grains, seeds and seed oils, nuts, soyfoods and animal products. Omega-3 fatty acids are present in far fewer foods. Usually our diets provide 10 to 20 times as much of the omega-6s as of omega-3s. Experts recommend that a more ideal balance would be two to six parts omega-6 fatty acids to one part omega-3 fatty acids.



My co-authors and I cover these complex issues of dietary fats in our books: Becoming Vegetarian, The New Becoming Vegetarian, Becoming Vegan, Becoming Raw, and Raising Vegetarian Children. Here are a few simple guidelines that can restore your balance.

1. Limit your use of polyunsaturated oils rich in omega-6 fatty acids and high-fat processed foods that are high in these oils. Oils that are high in omega-6 fatty acids are sunflower, safflower, corn, soybean oils and cottonseed oils; also check labels on processed foods for these oils.

2. Include good sources of the omega-3 fatty acid in your diet. Rely on flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, hempseeds, hempseed oil, canola oil, walnuts and green leafy vegetables. Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil are by far the richest sources; one teaspoon of flaxseed oil or one and a half tablespoons of ground flaxseed can give your day’s supply; doubling this amount may give you a valuable safety margin. Other sources are walnuts, tofu and soybeans, leafy greens.

Although balance type oils provide a good balance of omega-3s and 6s if they were our only source of dietary fat, they are not our best choice because dietary intakes of the omega 6s already are more than ample.



This egg substitute works well to replace an egg or two in pancakes, muffins and most cakes and cookies. Instead of saturated fat and cholesterol, you’ll increase your intake of omega3s. This won’t replace eggs in an omelet, quiche or soufflé though. Flaxseed oil should never be heated, however the omega-3 fatty acids present in ground flaxseed survive the baking of a muffin or pancake.

As an easy way to prepare your own egg replacer, blend 1/2 cup of flaxseed for about 1 minute until all seeds are turned into a coarse powder. If you prefer a finer powder, blend until the desired consistency is reached. Ground seeds can be stored, in a jar, in your refrigerator or freezer for several months; they will retain their omega 3s either way. In your favourite recipe for pancakes or baked items, use the proportion below as replacement for each egg.

1 tbsp              ground flaxseed

3 tbsp              water

Place ground flaxseed and water in a bowl. Stir and add to wet ingredients in recipe.


Vesanto Melina is a registered dietitian, speaker and consultant based near Fort Langley 604 882-6782.
. She will be conducting a food and nutrition workshop at Hollyhock June 4 to 7.



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